Archive for August, 2014

Is your school ready for the Computing curriculum?

August 29, 2014

Schools in England should be teaching the new Computing curriculum from next week onwards. However I fear, and I hear from colleagues, that many schools and teachers are not yet ready for this.

Over this year I have led several Naace/AQA courses for KS3 teachers wanting to better understand the KS3 Computing programme of study. The reactions to the course of those attending and things that they said have caused me to reflect over the Summer on the deep misunderstandings that many teachers and school leaders (and policy makers!) have about the nature of Computing/ICT as a curriculum subject.

I remember a Maths adviser in 1984 bemoaning the state of maths teaching in schools. He wanted to remove maths from the curriculum for five years, by which time the other curriculum areas would have had to take responsibility for teaching numeracy. Then he could bring back maths as the subject it ought to be, with it’s own unique contribution to the curriculum. The relevance of this story is that he said this during a discussion about what ICT uniquely brings to the curriculum.

Already by 1984 ‘ICT” was being interpreted as teaching of the ICT skills necessary to operate computers, and what ICT ought to be uniquely contributing to the curriculum was even then getting lost. And it’s been pretty much lost ever since in far too many schools. However the crisis point we got to 4 years ago in England, with ICT qualifications that were boring the pants off kids, has led to quite a lot of debate about what ICT as a curriculum subject ought to be. The debate has been somewhat confused by the computer science enthusiasts who are only interested in programming and don’t see the broader picture well, but it has caused teachers to question what they have been teaching and this has led a few of them to take the time to try and understand what ICT/Computing really is – and hence why they attended the courses.

ICT/Computing (or whatever you want to call this curriculum area) is fundamentally about solving problems using technology.The technology brings with it several fundamental concepts that are not at all easy to explore and learn about through other curriculum areas. The idea of a computer program as a sequence of instructions, using concepts such as variables, conditionality, iteration, logic and so on is one of the key areas of concepts, but there are others. There is the idea of hyper-linked information and the levels of interaction that can be built into a web-page – there are 7 different levels of interaction in a well-designed web page. Then there are the concepts around the organisation of data and relational databases. And other ICT tools contain important concepts, such as how spreadsheets can link and manipulate numbers, and how word-processors can manipulate grammatical structures to solve business problems – think mail-merge as a simple example. Then there is the area of embedded systems, sensing and control. These are all important conceptual areas that children should understand. They are all around us and we should be controlling them not allowing them to control us, unless in the full knowledge of how we are being manipulated by the things around us, we want them to.

These should of course be learned in context, with examples from many different areas (i.e. subject/curriculum areas). Which is why the Computing curriculum cannot just be taught in Computing lesson time. Just as the Maths adviser saw the necessity for for numeracy to be taught across the curriculum and maths ideas used in many subject areas, so is the same true for Computing.

The important thing for ICT/Computing teachers to understand is that pupils don’t even start learning what they should in the ICT/computing curriculum until all those low-level ICT skills necessary to operate computers and applications have been acquired. This has been quite a hard idea for the teachers on the courses to grasp, because they have traditionally spent so much of their time in ICT lessons setting tasks that that are all about developing the basic skills, and not really about problem solving.

The second idea those on my courses grappled with, is that for pupils to be demonstrating ICT capability, it is essential that they are permitted (well forced actually) to make their own choices of what technology to use to solve the problem set. Which of course means that they may use software that the teacher hasn’t taught them to use – and may not really be proficient in using themselves. And as there isn’t time in ICT lessons to teach pupils how to use new applications that are appearing, the implication is that they need to arrive at secondary school with wide experience of using applications and with personal skills to learn how to use them independently and collaboratively. They need to be teaching each other how to find and assess new applications and how to use them in the most powerful ways possible.

Then the third idea that caused them lots of concern, is that the time allocated to teaching ICT/Computing the subject is insufficient to cover all that is specified in the English Computing curriculum – which is all that was in the ICT curriculum with more emphasis on the computer science aspects and more on IT (what’s inside the box and how it works).

Just as it would be completely insufficient if language skills were only developed in the English teaching time (which is typically many times the time allocated to ICT/Computing), it is completely insufficient for the use of technology to solve problems to only be taught in ICT/computing teaching time. It has to be a responsibility of all the teachers across the curriculum. A fair number of primary schools are achieving this but the scene in secondary schools is pretty dire, to judge by the feedback from the teachers who came on the courses. Most had little of this kind of buy-in from the senior leaders or the heads of other subject departments and felt they would really struggle to make the case – though several in their course evaluations expressed the intention to try, now that they much better appreciated what ICT/computing really is.

I feel that one of the sessions on the course they really appreciated was the time we spent looking at the unique contribution of ICT/Computing to the curriculum, and the fundamental ways of thinking and approaches to problem solving that it gives children. And they appreciated the time we spent looking at the huge range of career opportunities that require understanding of how ICT solves (business) problems. Every manager in just about every kind of business, large and small, needs to understand this very well if their business is to succeed and be competitive. I wish we could get school leaders to properly consider the needs of young people in a computer-enabled and connected world, but it seems that many are driven by league tables and exam pressures, rather than by the need to provide “a broad and balanced computing curriculum’, which is what I hear that Ofsted will be looking for, every time I hear David Brown speak.